Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 13, 2012
Santa Cruz mosaic artist Nancy Howells recently lent me a great little book called “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon. Writing a recipe for living creatively seems daunting enough, but Kleon does it well in ten short chapters, enhanced with his own clever graphics and a sprinkling of celebrity quotes. What I really like about “Steal” is that it gives you permission to swipe, fake-it, imitate, be boring, and look stupid. All those behaviors you thought would squelch your creative powers are not only allowed, they’re encouraged. It’s very liberating and validating to those of us who’ve always felt that copying was akin to cheating.
All artists steal ideas, says Kleon. Complete originality is a myth. The key to good theft is to steal selectively, to be choosy about who and what will shape you. Identify your heroes, study them, copy them, try to understand their way of thinking. Eventually imitation will lead to emulation, “breaking through into your own thing,” says Kleon.
|One of my favorite graphics from "Steal Like an Artist."|
Perhaps my favorite of Kleon’s ten tenets is “use your hands.” Kleon writes books, but he makes even that a partly analog process. To better organize his book “Newspaper Blackout” he scanned his poems, printed them out, and then pushed the sheets of paper around all over his office. His desk has a computer, but also opportunities for craft time with various papers, felt pens, sticky notes, scissors, pins and tape. Many of his ideas are like that—ways to bring fun and a child-like abandon back into the creative process. “You should wonder at the things nobody else is wondering about. If everybody’s wondering about apples, go wonder about oranges,” says Kleon. “Invite others to wonder with you.”
Allow me to share a few more pieces of wisdom from “Steal Like an Artist” along with some opportunities for play time.
CLIMB YOUR OWN FAMILY TREE
Last time I visited my parents, I borrowed a small box full of family photos. I wanted to create a reproducible photo album that told the story of my father’s family in America. I went through the oldest images with my dad so he could identify people, relationships, places and dates. Then, I organized the photos by person and chronologically, and created multiple copies of a photo album on MyPublisher.com for my dad, aunt, brother and myself. Now that the photo album is completed, I’m beginning to draw a family tree where I’m the trunk (the starting point) and all my ancestors are the branches.
Steal: “Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff.” For your creative tree, the trunk will be a writer, artist, activist, or role model that you truly love. Study this one greater thinker, then create branches by studying the people your thinker loved, and so on. “Climb the tree as far as you can go, [then] start your own branch.” Hang pictures of your favorite artists on the wall and learn from them. “They left their lesson plans in their work.”
STAND NEXT TO THE TALENT
|Santa Cruz mosaic artist Nancy Howells shows her 3D|
sculpture class how to apply thin set to their animals.
|There are plenty of opportunities for|
stealing ideas from the great
multitude of mosaic projects
displayed in Nancy Howell's
backyard during her workshops.
Steal: “You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with.” Director/actor Harold Ramis’s rule for success is: “Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him. Hang out with him. Try to be helpful.”
THE NOT-SO-SECRET FORMULA
The class I finally took from Nancy—3D sculpture mosaic—was such a great experience. Nancy teaches is her lovely garden, filled with her own colorful mosaic projects and all the tools and supplies one could ever need. She’s incredibly prepared, attentive to everyone’s needs, and allows lots of creative freedom. The students—me included—each chose small topiary animal shapes and learned how to wrap them in cheese cloth and thin set, like mummies, so we could then apply mosaic pieces and finally grout. While there, I learned that mosaic classes are not that plentiful, and students often come long distances to take Nancy’s classes. She says she enjoys teaching because she also learns a lot from her students.
Steal: “People love it when you give your secrets away. When you open up your process and invite people in, you learn. If you’re worried about giving your secrets away, you can share your dots without connecting them.”
|Hedwig Heerschop, curator of the "Photo|
Alchemy" exhibit at the Pajaro Valley
Gallery in Watsonville, shows students how
to make a cyanotype print in her free
workshop in June.
STEP AWAY FROM THE SCREEN
I recently attended a free workshop held in conjunction with a show at the Pajaro Valley Gallery. The show (which ended in June) explored alternative processes in photographic media which made me think of digital photo manipulation, but was actually much more hands-on. In the workshop—taught by the show’s curator Hedwig Heerschop and her assistant, Sieglinde Van Damme—I learned to make cyanotype photograms, a very simple contact-printing process. After arranging small objects on top of sensitized paper indoors, we exposed the paper to bright sunlight outdoors, creating vivid blue (cyan) shadow images on the paper. It was a really simple, yet challenging process, and very hands-on.
Steal: “Just watch someone at their computer. They’re so still, so immobile. We need to move, to feel like we’re making something with our bodies, not just our heads.” We need to engage all our senses when we’re creating. “Art that only comes from the head isn’t any good.”
OPPORTUNITIES TO ENHANCE YOUR CREATIVE LIFE
|Artist Toni Sutherland works on her child's|
chair with and ocean theme for the
Syphony League's "Rare ChairAffair"
Gala and auction, August 25, 2012.
Nancy Howells will be teaching various mosaic workshops throughout the summer and fall, including a reprise of her two-day 3D Mosaic Sculpture class on August 18-19. To register or for more information, go to www.paintedchairstudio.com.
|After a water bath, workshop cyanotype|
prints dry on wire screens on the floor
of the Pajaro Valley Gallery.
Cabrillo Arts Summer Workshops is offering a Cameraless Photography class taught by Monterey photographer Martha Casanava from July 16-27. The class will introduce cyanotype photograms, dry plate tintype photograms, lumen prints, chemigrams, cliché verre, and other processes. See www.cabrillo.edu/academics/artstudio/cabrilloarts/class.htm for details on this class and many others offered this summer.